Adults who don’t want to grow up: the Peter Pan syndrome


Most of us know the story of Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up, but have you heard of the Peter Pan Syndrome?

Each of us, in the course of his life, starts from a condition of absolute dependence (mostly on parenting figures) to reach a slow and progressive conquest of an increasing autonomy.

After having internalized the way our parents see and, above all, evaluate what surrounds us, we learn to see the world with our own eyes, to draw from it indications, to express an idea and to create an independent opinion.

Most of the time this path takes place in a natural way and the succession of its stages almost escapes us.

The undisputed acceptance of the models that are proposed to us is replaced by an initial excess of critical sense that makes us question everything and everyone (the “polemic” period typical of adolescence), up to lead us to build our own scale of values, a yardstick strong enough to confront the others without being crushed.

We learn to relate to others, to assert our ideas by giving them motivation, we can explain and support our opinions and our position using dialogue and reason and no longer an opposition of principle that often hides a lack of content and certainties.

A difficult achievement

Sometimes it can happen that the conquest of individual autonomy is not entirely painless, detaching ourselves from the certainties that we have assimilated to create others, or simply to understand that we can really share them and then make them truly ours, it involves a considerable effort, it means questioning, accept the idea that everything we believed in up to that moment could be wrong and that we are still something shapeless that needs to be shaped, and shaped at the price of great sacrifices and going through a thousand uncertainties.

Accept or escape the natural process of growth?

However, growth and individuation are an inevitable evolution, man cannot remain stationary in his condition, he has only one possible choice: grow or regress. Growing up, becoming autonomous, also means being able to be alone, only the ability to experience solitude makes the individual completely free and therefore able to relate to others in the right way.

Rejection of growth is the regressive response to the fear of loneliness and it is the search for new, fictitious, certainties in which to believe and to which to submit in the attempt to perpetrate the infantile condition of security, lived as a refuge, that is, without responsibility.

Escaping from reality is an increasingly common attitude in today’s society, once problems and negative situations are identified, it is decided to avoid them, to escape them, but this is not always possible, unless we do not escape the reality as a whole. Negative situations will always arise and it will not be possible to avoid them forever. A more constructive attitude would be to tackle the obstacles in order to understand where we are most vulnerable and to commit ourselves to overcoming our fears and weaknesses.

It is the lack of strength that makes us flee and it is the lack of strength that makes us consider the obstacles we encounter above our abilities, it is only up to us to grow our strength, feeding it with self-confidence.

The Peter Pan syndrome

The “Peter Pan syndrome” refers to the famous boy of the fairy tale of the same name, the eternal child in green tights, and defines the fear of growing that characterizes many teenagers but also several adults.

It is now established that there is no period of life in which it is possible to place precisely the transition from immaturity to maturity. This is a path that is affected by individual characteristics, external influences, expectations and pressures to which each of us is subjected in a different way and which, however, can never be considered completely concluded.

Especially today, adults seem to be increasingly strongly and consciously intent on delaying as much as possible their maturity, endlessly prolonging adolescence by maintaining and flaunting language, clothing, attitudes that identify this age that is seen as a symbol of freedom, carelessness, the desire to live and to make new experiences without being burdened by too many worries and responsibilities.

Today more than ever the age you perceive no longer coincides with the real one, being young is much more a psychological condition than not. You are young if you have a certain way of behaving, regardless of any wrinkles.

Millions of people have identified and still identify with Peter Pan and his capricious, egocentric and intolerant personality, with his desire to stay away from the world of the great and especially from the prospect of growth.

The refusal to grow

The refusal to grow expresses the will to escape the expectations of others and this may depend on the fact that we feel inadequate and therefore unable to comply with them, or the fact that we do not identify with them and therefore we do not want to conform to a model that we do not perceive as our own.

From the idealization of the figure of Peter Pan we also get another message that they have failed the fixed points of reference on which to rely. Entering the world of adults ends up being more and more frightening because we feel disenchanted, abandoned to ourselves, and this leads us to refuse to accept it, to enter to be part of it.

Peter Pan opposes the adult world by flaunting his eternal condition of childhood, the determination not to want to grow up, but his is not an irresponsible, immature or selfish choice, it is the effort to get for himself, and for those who will follow him, a better life, free from the excess of rationality that oppresses us.

A positive or negative value?

Giving an absolute value of positivity or negativity to the will and the attempt not to want to grow is not an easy task. This attitude can hide different motivations and lead to a different approach to life, therefore it can assume very different values.

In its most positive aspect, the rejection of growth manifests itself in a partial way. The adult becomes such in the sense that he knows how to face life without hiding, he does not shirk his duties and responsibilities, but maintains that typically childish ability to be amazed and amazed even by the small things, to rejoice and be excited, to be curious and creative.

In its most negative sense, however, the refusal to grow may involve a total refusal to take responsibility, to take charge of our duties until it manifests a cynical and disenchanted behavior towards the world, This is not the attitude of children, but the attitude of those who reject growth and normal evolution by raising a wall between themselves and the real world.

There is a tendency to look for someone to dump the problems on (often, even for adult individuals, these figures are still represented by the parents), someone to deal with them in their place. There is a tendency to avoid a reality that does not like, rather than confront it and commit to change it. It is said that today young people are fragile but their fragility is the consequence of a problematic adult world, of parents who still feel like children, who cannot transmit certainties, self-confidence, optimism in the future. It is the uncertainties that young people perceive in adults that induce fear, and prolong it in their own adulthood.

It is not said, however, that these attitudes must be seen as the Peter Pan Syndrome. They can be simply episodes, occasional escapes. Even a mature and responsible adult from time to time may want to be a child again and savour the carefree nature of that age, without thereby failing in the commitments that his life requires.

To conclude, a brief analysis of the fairy tale of Peter Pan

Peter Pan is the child who does not want to grow up and decides to escape from the perspective of becoming an adult by taking refuge on Neverland, where he lives fantastic adventures in the company of fairies and pirates.

Next to him is Wendy, the little girl who, on the contrary, is perhaps growing too fast, held accountable by the parents who entrust custody of her siblings. But Wendy also tries to keep her boyish side and, while not wanting to disappoint the expectations of her parents, dreams of her enchanted world looking at Peter from the window. A Peter that only she, still able to dream, can see.

Barrie’s Story

The story, written by James Barrie in 1904, was made famous by the Walt Disney cartoon made in 1953, which presents us a somewhat simplified version of the adventures of the famous elf and their meaning.

The Peter who Barrie presents us  is a more complicated character, less carefree, his escape from real life has implications even painful. His Peter flies away, through the open window, from his mother’s house. Barrie tells us that “the window has no bars” and this is not a simple descriptive detail but it wants to indicate that Peter’s fantasy is still free to fly.

Peter’s New World

But the new world Peter’s in isn’t as wonderful as he imagined. Everyone escapes him because he is different from them and, although he can taste freedom, he struggles to find his own dimension to the point of starting to think about going back to his mother. Thanks to his stubbornness he also manages to realize this desire, but on one condition: he can get to what was his home but he can enter the room of his mother only if the window is still open. This begins to suggest the idea that the escape route, chosen by Peter, is a road without return. But Peter is sure that the window is always open because he is sure that mom will never stop waiting for him to come back to her.

And so it is. When he enters his mother’s room she sleeps. Peter looks at her and in his mind begins to appear the desire to abandon the world that he had chosen to return permanently to her. The desire to escape, the need for freedom is still too strong and Peter ends up flying away again, promising himself to return soon.

And he will keep his promise, but this time he will find the window closed. This time there will be bars at the window. This time his mother, whom Peter can only see through the glass, will hold a new child, and will be serene again, even without him.

The escape is accomplished, the bonds with reality are definitively broken, the world of the Neverland swallowed him. Right or wrong that it was the idea to land on this island, now there is no return.

A Warning

From this awareness comes a warning that reminds us how the ability to dream can be a way to enrich our lives, but how it is also necessary to be aware that believing in dreams must be a conscious choice of life, that accompanies and does not replace the aspects of everyday life that must always be lived in the first person. Knowing how to dream must be a way of life, and not an  escape from reality. Dream but don’t let those dreams transition into the Peter Pan syndrome.


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